RALEIGH — Proponents of a turnpike through western and southern Wake County fear the support they've forged may melt in the heat of rekindled cross-county jealousy now that the $850 million project has been stalled.
In the aftermath of the legislature's failure two weeks ago to put up a $20 million-a-year stake in the Triangle Expressway, political leaders along the proposed toll road's route say their constituents feel severely slighted.
"I've said before: It's a north-south issue," Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said. "It's characterized as the rich people of North Raleigh got what they wanted and don't care about us -- and that's just a shame that perception's out there."
The focus of this reignited taxpayer ire is the notion of paying twice to extend the Interstate 540 Outer Loop through their rapidly growing territory, said Sears and other small-town mayors who have supported the turnpike.
There's also jealousy about northern Wake residents enjoying a toll-free Outer Loop paid for the old-fashioned way -- with tax dollars. While residents in booming western and southern Wake have to slog along traffic-clogged roads such as U.S. 1 or N.C. 55, the mayors say, people living along the I-540 corridor can whisk along a new four-lane that now arcs north and east from Research Triangle Park to the U.S. 64 Bypass near Knightdale.
"Across the board, supporters and opponents of the toll road feel like it's been a slap in the face," Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said.
The 18.9-mile project could be delayed up to two years and cost an estimated $80 million more as a result of higher asphalt, concrete, steel and land prices.
A $20 million-a-year stake from the state would have allowed the N.C. Turnpike Authority to float construction bonds on the Wake project and hit a 2010 deadline for opening the first phase of the toll road. Without the state money, turnpike officials have said they'll consider a public-private partnership to build the road.
In the face of this uncertainty, developers and real-estate brokers say traffic congestion in western and southern Wake will worsen as growth along the turnpike corridor continues to explode. But some fear a prolonged delay will slow the pace of new projects.
"It will delay some of the development, but it won't stop it," said Phillip Dickens, a broker with Raleigh Realty who has several small parcels of land for sale near Holly Springs. "It'll be slower than it would have been because of the congestion that's there already."
To overcome initial resentment about the turnpike, small-town mayors sold the project as a choice between a toll road and no road at all. Their pitch was simple: Pay to drive on a toll road that, in four or five years, could ease traffic congestion, or wait another two decades for state transportation officials to decide whether the project is a top priority.
This lesser-of-two-evils argument seemed effective when the legislature appeared poised to pump money into the project. Now, though, turnpike opponents say it's time to reconsider using tolls to build the road.
"I think we're back at square one in determining how we're going to build the western and southern route of the Outer Loop," said Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, who cast the sole dissenting vote in May when the turnpike was approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. "I think we need to go back and consider all options."
Toll road foes
Apex resident Russ Catania, a semiretired mainframe computer operator, hates the notion of a turnpike about half a mile from his home. That's partly because he spent 31 years living in New Jersey, a mecca for turnpikes.
"You can't even go get a loaf of bread without paying a toll," he said. "I hate toll roads."
Catania said he thinks North Carolina officials are pushing toll roads to avoid reforming the inequities of the system North Carolina uses to collect and distribute money for new highways. That strikes a chord with Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan, who said the system is outdated and can't keep pace with North Carolina's voracious need for new roads.
In Wake County alone, road planners estimate there will be $6 billion in unmet transportation needs in the next 25 years, said Bryan -- a reflection of an estimated $65 billion gap statewide between revenue and new road and maintenance needs.
Bryan, the former Knightdale mayor who is also chairman of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, favors calling a special session of the legislature to revamp a highway revenue system last revised in 1989. He also favors a summit on transportation reform -- high-level talks among Gov. Mike Easley, legislative leaders, local officials and transportation experts.
Legislators also need to stop the flow of about $170 million a year from the highway trust fund designed to pay for new roads into the state's general fund, Bryan said. Other transportation experts say legislators need to consider scrapping or retooling the "intrastate fund," established with the promise of putting a four-lane within 10 miles of every citizen when North Carolina was more of a rural state.
Even if such reforms are made, North Carolina's growth will still outstrip the money available for new roads and maintenance, said Bryan.
For example, it took 19 years for the U.S. 64 Bypass project to turn from blueprints to asphalt, Bryan said. To build new roads faster, the state needs to leverage highway money, placing a down payment on turnpike projects that primarily rely on tolls to pay off their construction bonds.
"Clearly, congestion and getting stuck in stop-and-go traffic is going to get worse unless we start finding a way to pay for new roads now," Bryan said. "People expect us to come up with solutions for this problem."
Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at 829-8955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.